Slovakia: Roots of Robert Fico’s shooting lie in Slovakia’s...

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Published Time: 15.05.2024 - 23:19:42 Modified Time: 15.05.2024 - 23:19:42

On the latter question, at least, one answer dominated the debate: political polarization. “The hateful rhetoric we have witnessed has to stop,” said President Zuzana Čaputová. “Please, let’s stop it!” Slovakia, Robert Fico, slovakia prime minister, Fico

Robert Fico, despite all his leftist-populist drama, was still only doing his job on Wednesday, leading a cabinet session in the tiny former mining town of Handlová as a sop to neglected voters in Slovakia’s more remote regions.

As Fico was helicoptered to nearby Banská Bystrica rather than the capital Bratislava, due to the gravity of his wounds, the political establishment seemed frozen. Who was in charge? What was going on? How had this happened?

On the latter question, at least, one answer dominated the debate: political polarization. “The hateful rhetoric we have witnessed has to stop,” said President Zuzana Čaputová. “Please, let’s stop it!”

“Emotions are naturally high, but it would be very bad to inflame this already dangerous situation,” agreed Interior Minister Matúš Šutaj Eštok.

Some ruling coalition MPs, however, seemed not to have received the memo. Ľuboš Blaha, a pro-Russian MP from Fico’s Smer party, shouted at the opposition in parliament that the premier “is fighting for his life today because of your hatred.”

Deputy Speaker of Parliament Andrej Danko, head of the far-right Slovak National Party, demanded of the opposition: “Are you satisfied?” He added, ominously: “There will be some changes to the media.”

So how did Slovakia get where it is today — so riven between liberals and traditionalists, democrats and thugs, tolerance and its opposite — that political differences are now being settled with guns?

Social division was always going to bedevil in Slovakia. Following the 1989 revolution across Eastern Europe, the former Communist country suddenly plunged into a ruthless version of capitalism — before being abruptly divorced by the Czechs, who had been a stable national partner of 75 years within the former Czechoslovakia.

The social whiplash these sudden transformations caused turned city against village, young against old, Slovak patriot against Czechoslovak internationalist, as all searched for their footing in unfamiliar terrain.

For a young Robert Fico, who was just 25 when the Communists lost power, the 1989 revolution must have come as a shock: He had only just completed law school and joined the Communist Party, when the Warsaw Pact broke up along with the social order he had trained himself to succeed in.

Fico later claimed he “didn’t notice” 1989 as at the time he had been working at the Justice Ministry and preparing for a study trip to the U.S. — thereby from the outset aligning himself with a large part of the population who felt nostalgia for Communism and indifference toward the democratic West.

Young and talented, Fico joined the successor party to the Communists and was elected to parliament in 1992. Although he spent most of the 1990s in Strasbourg working at the European Court of Human Rights, he kept enough of a foot in domestic to start a successful “third-way” socialist party, Smer (Direction), in 1999. It went on to dominate Slovak for the next quarter century.

Here again, however, Fico embraced a style of that alienated a large portion of the country. Smer emerged from the wreckage of an authoritarian party that dominated Slovakia’s 1990s domestic scene, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), led by thuggish 1994-1998 PM Vladimír Mečiar. The oligarchs that financed and steered the HZDS were by all accounts looking for another political project after Mečiar became toxic to the West, and alighted on the unblemished Fico.

Smer scored a disappointing 13.5 percent in the 2002 election after an aggressive ad campaign that featured a family sitting naked on a bench under the slogan “To the EU – But Not With Bare Bottoms.” Four years later, however, a more polished Fico cruised to victory on 29 percent, forming a government with the authoritarian embers of the HZDS and the SNS nationalists.

Even before he began his first term as PM, then, Fico had already defined himself as nostalgic for socialism and yet cynically pragmatic in his pursuit of power — the opposite of what the younger, anti-Communist, ingenuously pro-West part of the electorate was looking for.

Fico was cruising through his third term as PM in 2018 when journalist Kuciak and his future wife were shot dead by a killer ostensibly hired to silence his reporting on corruption in .

The murders seem to have disoriented Fico. He immediately called a mawkish press conference at which he piled bundles of cash on a table promising to pay €1 million for information leading to the capture of the killer. He also accused the opposition of using the murder for political ends.

Two weeks later, Fico resigned; two years further on, Smer went down to defeat in the 2020 general election.

Out of power, Fico and his political allies — ministers, MPs, oligarchs, judges, senior police and intelligence officers — came under investigation on grounds ranging from corruption to abuse of power and sabotage. The former PM was even arrested in April 2022 and charged with organized crime offences, although those charges have since been dropped.

Last year he roared back to power. After winning another general election in September 2023, Fico and his cohort returned as if shot out of a cannon, gutting the leadership of the elite police unit that had charged them with crimes, spurning independent media, rewriting the criminal code to lighten punishments for corruption, and threatening to label NGOs with external funding as “foreign agents” under a Moscow-style law.

As Fico lay on a Banská Bystrica operating table in critical condition, media published a leaked video of the alleged shooter, identified locally as a 71-year-old writer, in which he said: “I don’t agree with the of this government,” citing crackdowns on media and the judiciary.

At the press conference after the attack, Šutaj Eštok, the interior minister, called for an end to the violent language and attacks on social media that have come to define Slovak in the Fico era. “I want to appeal to the public, to journalists and to all politicians to stop spreading hatred,” he said.